Last week the Black Brilliance Research Project, the coalition group led by Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now and asked by the City Council to spearhead a participatory budgeting process for city investments to increase community safety in BIPOC communities, delivered a preliminary report to the Council with a set of recommendations on priorities for the 2021 city budget.
The Black Brilliance project is enlisting community members to join in a research effort to collect, document and prioritize the public safety concerns of Seattle’s BIPOC communities, with a particular emphasis on Black communities.
Reading their preliminary research report, it would be easy to find reasons to dismiss it: it’s light on the details of who is actually doing the work (and their qualifications to do so), the methodology being followed, the demographics of the people whose input has been solicited, and other things one would expect from rigorous published research. But doing so would miss the point, for two reasons. First, this is a preliminary report under a severe time constraint: the Council will be finishing up the 2021 budget in the next three weeks and is already well down the path of prioritizing investments (and divestments) related to community safety and policing. A more rigorous process would miss the timeline entirely, so giving something to the Council members now to help guide their thinking is a worthy endeavor.
Second, what they are doing up to this point is largely consistent with qualitative research in the social sciences, which is different from quantitative research. Social science research frequently begins with qualitative research, often in the form of exploratory forays into communities that collect testimonials from community members speaking in their own words about their lived experiences. Qualitative research in the social sciences doesn’t give you hard data, demographics, or any sense of how widely-held a particular view is. But it does uncover issues and insights into trends, viewpoints, and the forces that are driving the way a community functions (or fails to function). Qualitative research is often a first step that informs quantitative research by pointing out to researchers the issues and questions they need to probe further — and to do rigorous, quantitative research on.
That said, there is a standard for rigor in qualitative research, since it is as susceptible to confirmation bias (and other forms of bias) as its hard-numbers counterpart. The report given to the Council last week doesn’t spell out the details that would allow us to understand the level of rigor applied, as this is the extent of its description of the methodology:
For this preliminary update from the Black Brilliance Research Project, we have seven community organizations and over 100 researchers who have engaged in local and digital community events, teach-ins, surveys, and interviews to inform the findings. Researchers are primarily Black and surveyed people from many racial, ethnic, and linguistic communities, with a focus on centering the lived experiences of Black people. Teams use a variety of methodology- including arts-based methodology like photovoice, digital storytelling, story-mapping, message-testing, archival research, geographic information systems, and more. In nearly all cases, these results reflect specific feedback from community members about topics related to what creates true community, safety, health, and thriving. Some of these findings are also from the community needs assessment survey. This survey is available in fifteen languages and includes a question about what community members would do with $200M to invest.
It’s important for us to interrogate this kind of research work on its methodology and rigor. Here the fact that the preliminary conclusions in this report match so closely to the talking points that Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now were using throughout the summer makes it doubly important that we make sure this isn’t just a fait accompli. However, the point of this particular report isn’t to publish their research: it’s a preliminary report intended to give the Council early budget guidance on a short deadline. So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and wait for future reports to thoroughly evaluate their methodology and rigor.
The report provides recommendations, with commentary and some context, in six broad areas:
- Housing reinvestments
- Mental health reinvestments
- Youth reinvestments
- Inter-generational reinvestments
- Economic and employment reinvestments
Here are some of the highlights from each of these areas. Of particular note: according to the report, “the number one priority that people have identified when we ask what produces safety is: housing, followed closely by mental health supports.”
There are two main recommendations for divestments:
- Policing (to no surprise) — though the report acknowledges a “diversity of thought” within the Black community as to what that should look like.
- Reducing government social works. The report suggests that having third-party social workers who are part of the community respond is better than social workers employed by the government. This ties to later recommendations to invest in “local and self-determining responses to harm.”
The report finds that the community is looking for “non-coercive, non-punitive ways to help people secure housing,” Among several types of coercive practices, it specifically notes, “In some cases in order to get case management and help navigating supports, Black people have to make difficult choices to remove people from their household or add people to meet some eligibility requirements.” The report also highlights that the community sees ending homelessness as a key part of community safety, but recognizes — in a recurring theme — that many housing support services discriminate against sub-populations within the Black community, including those with disabilities, those in the LGBTQ community, those who are homeless, those fleeing violence, and those with criminal records. And it raises concerns about how property managers can use their discretion over what constitutes acceptable paperwork to deny housing in a discriminatory manner. These concerns point out the challenges for the city in making the right kinds of investments in housing and homelessness response that will benefit the Black community.
Other recommendations for housing investments include:
- more “right to return” processes and policies to undo gentrification and displacement;
- creating housing alongside business development and transportation projects, that will preserve the Black-owned businesses that serve as “cultural anchors” and help to create new ones;
- housing projects that are designed and built by Black community members;
- creative uses of existing properties, including multi-use spaces;
- looking at policies to deter a proliferation of vacant homes.
Mental health reinvestments
Much of the discussion and recommendations in this section relate to the lack of a sustainable economic model for Black mental health providers serving their community: “Black mental health providers can’t make dignified living wages and hone their specific expertise for caring for Black people – because the current model does not charge rates that Black clients can afford. This creates stress for providers and clients.” The report suggests that there are are providers already “trained and ready” to deliver mental health services, but there aren’t spaces available for them. It also heavily emphasizes the importance of tailoring the mental health investments to the unique cultures of Black communities and to the specific harms that overpolicing has done to those communities; for example, the normalization of repeated and preventable deaths of Black community members.
The report again raises here the specific harms, and the need for tailored responses for Black sub-communities, including those with disabilities.
The report recommends investments in programs to hire Black youth and create pipelines for long-term sustainable jobs for them — not just one-year or summer jobs. And again, it points out the need for tailored programs for sub-communities that face heightened discrimination and/or impediments in the job market, including trans youth, disabled youth, youth with criminal records, youth in unstable housing situations, and immigrant or refugee youth.
Additionally, it recommends investments to ensure that all Black youth have access to high-speed Internet access to ensure that they have access to education. It cites that about 8,000 Seattle Public Schools students currently do not have access to adequate Internet access.
Recognizing that “home is one of the first places where people navigate healing, trauma and oppression,” the report recommends investing in programs that strengthen Black family and home life. It particularly calls out the need to address institutional racism in how the criminal justice and child welfare systems separate Black persons from their family and community, depriving children from access to their parents and elders from access to their adult children. “In many cases, this results in homes where grandparents must raise their grandchildren or where children are predominantly placed into the homes of white strangers.”
It also recommends investments in Black-led elder care facilities, of which there are very few today, in ensuring that Black elders have adequate Internet access, and in support services to allow Black elders to age in place.
Economic and employment reinvestments
In the spirit of “nothing about us without us,” the report argues for hiring “accountable Black people to be advisors and decision-makers on decisions that affect us.” At the same time, it acknowledges that there is a diversity of Black lived experiences, so decision-making processes should involve many people from the Black community and “avoid positioning one person as the spokesperson for all Black communities.”
It also includes a list of recommendations for supporting Black-owned businesses, including:
- collective economic and financing models;
- commitments to buying Black-owned products and services;
- grants for new and existing Black-owned businesses, along with other forms of access to capital;
- technical assistance resources for Black contractors;
- a displacement mitigation fund;
- an anti-gentrification, land acquisition fund to help the Black community acquire property and support economic development.
The report also stresses the importance of paying black people living wages — including jobs at non-profit community organizations. And it emphasizes the need for “high-quality and culturally specific” healthcare for Black people. Finally, it argues for transferring land and property to Black ownership, such as the two transfers approved by the City Council this week.
This is a long list of insights and ideas, certainly too long for the Council to address entirely in the 2021 budget, and yet it both provides insights into the broad set of challenges that the Black community faces in Seattle, and also previews the recommendations we can expect to see in forthcoming reports.
It will be interesting to see the kind of quantitative research that the Black Brilliance Project undertakes to further explore and validate the insights it has gathered so far — though in the end, the ultimate quantitative assessment will be the participatory budgeting process itself.
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